Posted by Barry Strauss under on February 15, 2023

Americans have more than usual reason to think about successors. Our current president, Joe Biden, is likely to run for reelection in 2024. He recently turned 80. His predecessor, Donald Trump, has announced that he is running for a second term in 2024; he is 76. I wish both men long and healthy lives, but time’s a thief. Besides, no president can serve more than two terms. If one of them wins the election, he will be gone by January 2029. Who will replace him? Or perhaps we’ll have a new president in 2025.

The American system leaves it up to the political parties and the people to choose candidates for the presidency. Still, a good leader should help groom a successor. Doing so is not easy. No one likes to contemplate his own mortality. No one likes to risk training a successor who may outshine him while he is still in office. And even the most responsible of leaders cannot foresee all the challenges that will face a country in the future, and therefore, cannot foresee, who precisely would make the best successor. And yet it is irresponsible to leave the future to take care of itself.

Time will tell whether either Biden or Trump prepares properly for the succession. For now, let’s consider three examples from the ancient world, each with a moral to the story.

A good leader should help groom a successor.

In our last blog, we considered the case of Pericles, a great leader but one who did not prepare for the succession. Another negative example is that of Alexander the Great. He certainly did not expect to die shortly before his thirty-third birthday and yet he did. A story about his death is rather terrifying. When lying on his deathbed, he was to whom his throne should go. Supposedly Alexander answered, “to the strongest.”  The result was a legacy of fifty years of civil war before his empire was divided finally among several successors. So much for not providing for the succession. Let’s turn out to two more positive examples.

Hamilcar Barca was Carthage’s most successful general in its long war with Rome for the control of the island of Sicily, known today as the first Punic war, 264–241 BC. Although Carthage lost the war in the end at sea, on land, Hamilcar was undefeated. Afterwards he longed for vengeance against Rome, and he began going down that road by rebuilding Carthage’s overseas empire, this time in southern Spain, which was rich in minerals and manpower. Hamilcar did not live long enough to reopen the war with Rome, but he left it as a legacy to his three sons. He called them the lion’s brood. The oldest of them is the most famous, one of antiquity’s greatest generals, Hannibal. The story goes that when Hannibal was nine years old, his father made him swear an oath on an altar over a sacrificial victim, an oath of eternal enmity towards Rome. Whether the story is true or not, there is no doubt that Hamilcar raised Hannibal and his brothers to be great warriors, and to oppose Rome.

When Hannibal reached maturity, which was after his father’s death, his men looked at him with wonderment, as if he were the reincarnation of Hamilcar. Hannibal went on to invade Italy, and to give the Roman republic its greatest defeat, at the battle of Cannae in 216 BC. Hamilcar had trained his son well to become a master of war. Yet there was one thing his father couldn’t give Hannibal:  the strategic acumen to chart a wise course for his country. The truth of the matter is that Carthage would have found it extremely difficult if not impossible to defeat Rome, given the power that Rome had already amassed. Hannibal would have been wiser to seek a modus vivendi rather than to go for Rome’s jugular. In the end, his father’s education did no favors either to Hannibal or to Carthage.

Let’s turn into another case. Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, walked a long and winding road to finding the right man to inherit his power. He understood from the first that he needed to arrange for his heir. His own life experience taught him that lesson. He was the beneficiary of a posthumous adoption by his great uncle Julius Caesar, who was murdered on the Ides of March in 44 BC, Augustus (then named Octavius) was only 18 at the time and he had to fight his way to supreme power in a series of campaigns that lasted for most of the next 15 years. On top of that, he faced his own continual health challenges. He knew how important it was to prepare for the future.

His first strategy was to marry his only birth child, his daughter, Julia, to his nephew, his sister’s son, Marcellus. The two of them were expected to have children, and to perpetuate the dynasty. But it didn’t work out because Marcellus died young.

Augustus’s next move was to remarry Julia to his righthand man and best general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. This was a happier arrangement, and the two of them produced five children: three sons and two daughters. Augustus adopted the two oldest sons, leaving only the youngest son to perpetuate his father’s name. Augustus groomed the two boys to be his successors, but they both died young.  The younger brother was considered unsuitable to rule either because of personality traits, or perhaps mental infirmity. Undaunted, Augustus turned to his stepson.

No leader can foresee everything that lies ahead, and maybe one of the best legacies to give a potential successor is the gift of flexibility.

Tiberius was the son of Augustus’s second wife, Livia. He had had Julia with his first wife, Scribonia, whom he divorced. Livia had been married earlier as well and gave birth to two sons. She and Augustus had no children together. Livia was an immensely powerful woman. Gossip said that she had poisoned all the other heirs to the throne to make way for her son Tiberius. But this is surely misogynistic slander. Death stalked the young in ancient society, in ways that are difficult for us to appreciate today, what with the advances of modern medicine.

Augustus respected Tiberius as a general and administrator, but he did not appreciate Tiberius’s harsh and biting personality. He adopted him as his successor, but with a twist. He insisted that Tiberius adopt his late brother’s son, Tiberius’s nephew, a man named Germanicus, even though Tiberius had a son of his own. Augustus wanted Germanicus to become emperor in due course because he had a hero’s personality, and because he was married to one of Julia’s daughters. Hence the son of Germanicus would become emperor in turn, thereby guaranteeing that Augustus’s bloodline would continue on the throne. This was all rather insulting to Tiberius, but to make it even worse Augustus forced him to divorce his wife, the woman who Tiberius loved, to marry Julia. Tiberius complied, but the re-marriage ended badly with Julia committing multiple adulteries and with Augustus, insisting that Tiberius divorce her. Augustus even sent his daughter Julia into exile on a desolate island off the Italian coast as punishment for her behavior.

In the end, Tiberius succeeded Augustus, and became Rome’s second emperor. His reign was a success in many ways although Tiberius proved as unpopular as Augustus had feared. Nor did Germanicus ever succeed him, because he died young, possibly as a victim of poisoning, and possibly at the behest of Livia, or even of Tiberius himself, or at least of one of Livia‘s friends. Germanicus’s son survived and he did succeed Tiberius as Rome’s third emperor. He was not a success; on the contrary, he was a disaster. His name was Gaius, or, as he is better known, Caligula.

The bottom line is that the path to choosing a successor is neither straight nor simple. Today’s wisdom might not prepare a young person for tomorrow’s world. No leader can foresee everything that lies ahead, and maybe one of the best legacies to give a potential successor is the gift of flexibility. Yet all things considered it is far better to groom a successor than to leave one’s country without one, as we learned from the case of Pericles last time.

We can only wonder what our leaders are doing today to prepare for their successors and for the leadership of the future. Still, as important as the leader’s role is, society plays an equally important part. We need to educate our future leaders. How is our educational system doing? We’ll turn to that in the next blog post.

Barry Strauss © 2023